Love and Vigilance: Traveling During COVID-19

Commentary on A First Plane Trip During the Pandemic

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Courtesy Georgia Wallen

There’s a lot to learn from New York’s turnaround in the long battle against COVID-19, even in the DC area where our collective resolve has been strong.  A short trip from DC to New York last month — my first time on a plane since the start of the pandemic — offered a peek into the vigilance and energy that is helping New Yorkers to stay on the right side of the COVID-19 curve.  I brought back a few insights for fellow travelers in the DMV.

My sister, an infectious disease specialist in a COVID-19 hotspot hospital in Manhattan, called the night before my flight to share pandemic-ready travel tips. She started by sizing up my stock of sanitizing sprays and wipes, which I learned were key for the journey.

My lavender-infused sanitizing spritz and CVS alcohol prep wipes failed to impress. But she was quick to propose an easy “Plan B:” douse regular baby wipes in rubbing alcohol (at least 70 percent) and keep them on hand in a waterproof container. I wondered why I would need such an generous stash of cleansing wipes and balked at the step-by-step “high vigilance” guidelines that followed.

Walking me through the process, her insider tips included wearing gloves in the airport, especially for the security screening; wiping all key surfaces surrounding my seat on the flight, from the seat itself to the tray table and – if taking a window seat – the window as well; and, after discarding the used wipes, using hand sanitizer on both hands and putting on a fresh pair of gloves.

I doubted that I had the guts to complete all the steps, which oozed paranoia. But news that Naomi Campbell has been doing this for years, even in First Class, was heartening.  And beyond my own discomfort, I didn’t want to risk being the visitor who became a COVID-19 vector so I vowed to comply.

Once I boarded my flight, I found solidarity with other well-prepared passengers. The gentleman two seats in front of me had on a sturdy face mask underneath an even sturdier face shield that resembled an upside-down 1980s sun visor. A woman wearing two face masks looked at me knowingly, proof that misery loves company. The airplane itself inspired confidence, with ample social distancing and assurances of freshly sanitized surfaces. The stewardess greeted us with a small packet of Purell and later provided us with a bottle of water, cheese chips and a granola bar in zip-lock bags. Our 35-minute flight from Reagan National to La Guardia was smooth, safe and uneventful.

“Welcome to Governor Cuomo’s New York!”, my sister gushed as she picked me up at the airport. Flashing road messages on the Jackie Robinson Parkway read, “COVID-19 is not over, be smart!”

The family greeted me warmly, but with a distinctly new twist. After a light elbow tap with my nephew, I was encouraged to enjoy the relaxation benefits of a quick shower and change of clothes. Anti-flu homeopathic capsules were lovingly placed on my bedside table. My luggage was thoroughly wiped before it entered my room. As my sister was starting a load of laundry, she gladly offered to toss in my travel clothes.

The morning after I arrived, my 12-year-old niece cheerfully stopped in to show me the family’s shiny new forehead thermometer. She sweetly asked if I wouldn’t like to give it a try? I humbly bowed for the temperature check, and within 3 seconds my niece pronounced, “97.7, wonderful!” It was loud enough for all to hear, and I think we each breathed a sigh of relief.

New York celebrated its first day without a single COVID-19 fatality the day after my arrival. It was a hard-won milestone. And the grueling fight continues. As I walked around Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, signs from the neighborhood block association encouraged mask-wearing for the safety of all.

In a city renowned for being tough, the signs seemed a fresh expression of the old adage to “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which brought to mind the painted mural near the corner of P Street and 14th NW in Logan Circle. Inspired by the visit, I hope to bring back love and vigilance to family, friends and neighbors here in the DMV.

Georgia Wallen lives in DC and enjoys every inch of the Logan Circle neighborhood. Originally from Jamaica, she grew up in Brooklyn NY and works in international development. She can be reached at gagiarts.com.